US Dr. T. Berry Brazelton, child care expert and pediatrician, dies at 99
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Trained in pediatrics and child psychiatry and endowed with an innate empathy for newborns and their often bewildered, guilt-ridden parents, T. Berry Brazelton devoted more than half a century to studying, nurturing, counseling, and advocating on behalf of young children and their families.
Through his clinical work, research papers, best-selling books, syndicated columns, television broadcasts, and popular lectures, Dr. Brazelton fundamentally changed the way pediatric care and child development are practiced and taught around the globe, from Boston’s renowned Children’s Hospital to remote corners of the Third World.
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Retired from practice for many years yet continuing to publish and lecture well into his 90s, Dr. Brazelton, who held the title of clinical professor of pediatrics emeritus at Boston Children’s Hospital, died Tuesday morning at his Barnstable home at the age of 99, his daughter, Stina Brazelton confirmed. The cause of death wasn’t disclosed.
Brazelton described her father as brilliant, charismatic, and compelling. She said his mission in life was to help people.
“We loved him,” she said during a brief phone interview on Tuesday.
Working in the tradition of Dr. Benjamin Spock, another hugely popular advice-dispensing pediatrician, Dr. Brazelton combined rigorous science with personal charisma to become one of America’s most visible and celebrated child-care experts, his name appended to groundbreaking institutions and scientific methods, his smiling, calming countenance familiar to millions of baby boomers starting families in the post-Spock era.
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“He revolutionized the way we think about families, particularly around the birth of a child,” said J. Kevin Nugent, a longtime colleague and friend who directs the Brazelton Institute in the Division of Developmental Medicine at Boston Children’s Hospital. “He affected so many people around the world.”
Dr. Brazelton’s focus on the overall health of babies and young children — their emotional well-being as well as their physical vitality — informed every aspect of his professional life. His ability to connect with them one-on-one, even at a preverbal level, was extraordinary, earning him the affectionate nickname “baby whisperer.”
“Whenever I’m with a newborn,” he once wrote, “I feel the magic in the way every baby plays a role in furthering the relationship with those who care for her and, as a result, her future.”
Among his most important contributions are the concept of anticipatory guidance for parents, a collaborative, dialogue-based approach now widely used in pediatric training, and his formulation of a neonatal behavioral assessment scale that bears his name. So, too, do an endowed chair in pediatrics and pair of programs affiliated with Children’s Hospital and Harvard Medical School: the Brazelton Institute, an education and research division of the hospital’s developmental medicine program, and the Brazelton Touchpoints Center, a training center made up of a network of doctors, nurses, educators, and other professionals dedicated to applying his teaching principles to parental education and public policy.
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At Children’s, he founded and for many years directed the hospital’s first Child Development Unit, established in 1972. At Harvard, he started the first developmental pediatric fellowship program, another important piece of his legacy.
In addition to his pioneering clinical work, Dr. Brazelton wrote and lectured extensively for general audiences. As author or coauthor, he published more than 30 books and 200 scholarly papers while traveling widely as a kind of global ambassador for enlightened parenting and child-rearing.
His first book, “Infants and Mothers,” published in 1969, sold over 1 million copies and has been translated into two dozen languages. Other popular titles of his include “Doctor and Child” (1976), “Working and Caring” (1985), “What Every Baby Knows” (1987), “Toddlers and Parents: A Declaration of Independence” (1989), “Touchpoints: Your Child’s Emotional and Behavioral Development” (1992), and The Brazelton Way series, covering such topics as sleep, discipline, feeding, and toilet training. In 2013, he published “Learning to Listen: A Life Caring for Children,” a memoir written with the assistance of his daughter Christina.
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Touchpoints, according to Dr. Brazelton and his colleague Dr. Jonathan Sparrow, are periods during the first years of life when children’s developmental spurts may cause “disruption in the family system.” His primary aim in writing “Touchpoints,” Dr. Brazelton asserted, was reassuring anxious parents that regressions are part of normal child development.
“Readers were grateful to have these normal hurdles predicted,” he noted, “because they could avoid a cycle of worry and guilt.”
“What Every Baby Knows” also became the title of a popular cable TV show hosted by Dr. Brazelton. Airing from 1983 to 1996, it won an Emmy award and made the affable baby doctor even more of a household name. Among his fans were Bill and Hillary Clinton, who invited Dr. Brazelton to a White House conference on children’s and parents’ issues. In 1988, Congress appointed Dr. Brazelton to the National Commission for Children. Fourteen years later, he was awarded a Presidential Citizens Medal for “exemplary deeds of service” to his country and fellow citizens.
Maria Trozzi, assistant professor of pediatrics at Boston University’s School of Medicine and director of the Good Grief Program at Boston Medical Center, trained under Dr. Brazelton as a pediatric fellow and traveled with him for nearly two decades on road trips with his National Seminar Series, an educational program for health professionals and parents.
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“A hundred years from now, Berry will be credited as the father of developmental pediatrics,” Trozzi said. “There’s been nobody like him since,” she added. “His capacity to understand what parents were facing, not just their babies and young children, and to reach out and grab that parent emotionally — that was his magic.”
Thomas Berry Brazelton II was born in Waco, Texas, on May 10, 1918, where his father, Thomas Sr., a Princeton University graduate, ran a family lumber business. Their relationship was not a close one.
“I’m sure he loved me,” Dr. Brazelton later reflected, “but I never really knew him.” His father’s remoteness, he added, “fueled my ambitions” to better understand early father-child bonding.
Deepening this resolve was his mother’s own emotional distancing. Pauline Battle Brazelton doted on her younger son, Churchill, but not on young Berry, as he became known.
After attending boarding school in Virginia, he studied at Princeton and briefly contemplated a Broadway career. A talented singer and dancer, he had befriended, among others, actor Jimmy Stewart and director Joshua Logan before enrolling in medical school in Texas.
Dr. Brazelton transferred to Columbia University’s College of Physician and Surgeons and, after serving as shipboard physician on a Navy destroyer escort during World War II, completed internships at New York’s Roosevelt Hospital and Massachusetts General Hospital, settling in the Boston area, where he also did a training fellowship at Roxbury’s James Jackson Putnam Children’s Center.
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It was during a residency at Children’s Hospital that Dr. Brazelton cultivated a lifelong interest in what he called the “total child.”
He also met Christina Lowell, a cousin of the poet Robert Lowell. After a brief courtship, the two were married in the fall of 1949. They had four children — Catherine (Kitty) Brazelton, of New York City, a musician and Bennington College professor; Christina , of ; Pauline , of ; and Thomas III, of — all of whom survive Dr. Brazelton,
In 1951, Dr. Brazelton opened a pediatric practice in Cambridge while beginning an instructorship at Harvard Medical School. As a child psychiatrist in training, he underwent two years of analysis himself. Along with Dr. Spock and Harvard psychologist Dr. Jerome Bruner, with whom he studied in the late 1960s, Dr. Brazelton counted among his friends and mentors Margaret Mead, the famed anthropologist.
Mead in particular helped spark Dr. Brazelton’s cross-cultural interest in babies and families, and in troublesome health issues like fetal alcohol syndrome. From Mexico, Guatemala, and Kenya, to China and Japan, he traveled widely in order to better understand different cultural approaches to childbirth and child-rearing, using those insights to inform his teaching and writing back home.
His influence ranged far and wide. At various times, Dr. Brazelton served in leadership roles with the Section on Child Development for the American Academy of Pediatricians, the Society for Research on Child Development, and the National Center for Clinical Infant Programs. He lobbied heavily for passage of the 1993 Family Leave Act. More than 180 Touchpoint teaching sites now exist in 33 states. He taught psychiatry and human development at Brown University, and his papers are archived at Harvard Medical School’s Center for the History of Medicine, housed at the Francis A. Countway Library of Medicine in Boston.
In a rare instance of his stirring public controversy, in 2009 Dr. Brazelton wrote a syndicated column suggesting that house cats could pose a health hazard to pregnant women and young babies. “Cat lovers may be upset with us,” he and his coauthor, Dr. Sparrow wrote, but, they warned, some cats could grow jealous of newborns stealing attention from them and “lie on (infants) to smother them.” Animal welfare advocates were outraged, denouncing the authors’ scenario as a long-discredited urban myth.
In his later years, Dr. Brazelton took up painting and gardening, among other hobbies.
His worldwide fame notwithstanding, Dr. Brazelton never lost his capacity to connect with young children and their parents on a profoundly human level. In his 2013 memoir, he recounted a 1992 trip to Croatia with UNICEF workers aiding Bosnian refugees in a genocide-plagued war zone. The trauma he witnessed was difficult to stomach, he recalled. Yet when a social worker wondered how he coped with emotional burn-out, Dr. Brazelton cheerfully replied, “I go see a newborn!”
He was duly taken to see an infant boy being cared for by his mother and grandmother. Dr. Brazelton asked for permission to play with the baby. “They were mesmerized when the baby turned to my voice, then chose his mother’s voice over mine,” he recalled. “His mother began to weep with joy. Without words, a new baby, once again, gave us all renewed courage and a feeling that the world might go on, in spite of the inhumanity of man to man.”
Brazelton leaves four children and multiple grandchildren, said his daughter, Stina.
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